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US to boycott UN racism meeting

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration has decided "withregret" to boycott a U.N. conference on racism next week overobjectionable language in the meeting's final document that couldsingle out Israel for criticism and restrict free speech, the StateDepartment said Saturday.

The decision follows weeks of furious internal debate and willlikely please Israel and Jewish groups that lobbied against U.S.participation but upset human rights advocates and some in theAfrican-American community who hoped President Barack Obama, as thenation's first black president, would decide to send an officialdelegation.

The administration had wanted to attend the April 20-25 meetingin Geneva, although it warned in late February that it would not gounless significant changes were made to the draft text.

Some revisions -- including the removal of specific criticalreferences to Israel and problematic passages about the defamationof religion -- were negotiated.

But the State Department said the text retains troublingelements that suggest support for restrictions on free speech andan affirmation of the findings of the first World ConferenceAgainst Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 that the U.Scannot endorse.

"Unfortunately, it now seems certain these remaining concernswill not be addressed in the document to be adopted by theconference next week," State Department spokesman Robert Wood saidin a statement. "Therefore, with regret, the United States willnot join the review conference."

Concern is high that the meeting may descend into heated debateover Israel that marred the last such gathering eight years ago,especially since Iran's hardline president -- who has called forIsrael's destruction -- will attend.

The Durban meeting was dominated by quarrels over the MiddleEast and the legacy of slavery.

The United States, under the Bush administration, and Israelwalked out over attempts to liken Zionism -- the movement toestablish a Jewish state in the Holy Land -- to racism. Thereference was later dropped, but concerns about anti-Semitismremained in the final text.

Plans to reaffirm the 2001 document were of particular concernto the Obama administration.

"(It) singles out one particular conflict and prejudges keyissues that can only be resolved in negotiations between theIsraelis and Palestinians," Wood said.

Planning for the upcoming meeting, which is to review progressmade in fighting racism since Durban, has been underway for monthsand was shunned by the Bush administration.

But once Obama took office, his team decided to engage in theprocess as part of its broader aim of reaching out to theinternational community.

After sending delegates to a preparatory meeting, theadministration announced on Feb. 27 that it would not participatein further planning talks or the conference itself unless thechanges were made.

In the weeks that followed, the U.S. pressed its European alliesto lobby for an acceptable text and officials had held out hopeuntil earlier this week that the negotiations would produce anacceptable document.

Possible participation by Washington remained on the table,pending the changes, even after it was learned that Iran's hardlinePresident Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who has called for the destructionof Israel -- would go.

Pro-Israel groups in the United States vehemently opposed U.S.participation while human rights advocates and organizations likeTransAfrica and members of the Congressional Black Caucus thoughtit was important to attend.

Just hours before Saturday's announcement, Human Rights Watchappealed for the U.S. to go, saying it "should stand with thevictims of racism."

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